Dean Walsh is a hippy-come-lately. And the only hippy I know that hails from Mt Druitt. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. There’s a lot that’s very, very right about it. After all, a hippy, essentially, at best practice, is someone who cares about the world and who’s set about to heal it, rather than ruin it. We need more of those, more than ever.
Walsh also fells giant sequoia-sized stereotypes about westies. First of all, he’s a dancer. And choreographer. As opposed to chippy, or sparky, and front-row forward. Second of all, he never dreamed, as far as I know, of being a bank robber, or running a topless bar, or driving a Monaro, but of being a paleontologist. (Although he was a roofing water-proofer.) While others were reading the form-guide or something sold in a brown-paper sleeve, he was getting familiar with fossils. Thirdly, his masculinity isn’t so fragile, or narrowcast, as to preclude shedding tears for the disappearance of his childhood playground: bush run amok, with a creek running through it. That was yesterday. Today, his fishing-hole has been filled-in and suburbanised with brick-veneer clones.
It’s that experience that has formed Fathom, something of an experiment, so he tells us, forming part of Performance Space’s Uneasy Futures — “a season of visual and performing arts that contemplates visions of the future and moving towards the unknown”. The Australia Council saw fit to award him a dance fellowship and Fathom is his research. Whether that means we can expect some more refined opus at the end of his two-year stint, I know not.
As it stands, it’s rather nebulous; more meditative and suggestive than narrative. And that’s OK. Inscrutability is the higher ground when it comes to expression in this particular form. Oh sure, there are the great story ballets, but modern dance always seems to be the richer for asking the viewer to join in the performance by exercising his or her imagination. One can be too inscrutable, of course, to the point of obscurity and Walsh does, arguably, tread a little too close at times.
He reckons he wants to make stuff that’s poetic. I’m not sure what that means. If poetry is romance, then I don’t find so much of that here, since it’s pervaded and mediated by Walsh’s other ambition: to bring “a small degree of awareness of themes around the environment, natural world and our growing interface with them”. If poetry means comedy, or irony, or the wildly, wantonly, rampantly, colourfully imaginative, then Walsh succeeds on all fronts.
In the beginning he is a fisherman, kitted-out in his wet weather clobber, standing in a big bucket, which transpires to be a prop central to the whole work. He’s any man and everyman, at one with the sea; he’s almost become one of its faceless, mysterious creatures. But he’s getting himself in all kinds of knots, effectively hemming himself in, strangling himself with his own accoutrement. Sound familiar?
Walsh transforms himself from ape to angler, man to mermaid, and through a range of other aquatic explorations. He takes us deep into the sea, deep into the darkness, and light, of our own imaginations, and he’s enlisted a superlative production team to make the journey all the more effective and immersive. Key among these lighting designer Clytie Smith, costume designer Rebecca Bethan Jones and, above all, sound editor and designer Kingsley Reeve, whose work is an aural revelation.
Walsh is a powerful, exceptionally skilled and provocative dancer, as well as choreographer, and this work is stimulating and thought-provoking: he exercises our minds in ways and in a cadence defined by the shapes and postures of his body. That’s an art, whatever else this might be.
The details: Fathom played at CarriageWorks until May 21.